Reading this article on Ars Technia got me to thinking about a story I heard on how the military is working to develop “human out of the loop” robotic systems for use in warfare. I remember hearing about things like the Land Warrior project where the goal was to use equipment to integrate small arms with high-tech equipment, allow for greater communication and command and control with individual soldiers, and to allow the individual soldier to be seen as an individual instead of as part of a larger unit. The military has also been interested in developing exo-skeleton type robots to allow for faster and more efficient loading and unloading of heavy equipment and, if they could get the motors and servos to be quiet enough, could allow infantry soldiers to carry more equipment into the field.
The idea of having a completely robotic soldier, however, is something that has been a staple of science fiction for forever but is now within reach of reality. With robotic infantry and aerial drones, the military would no longer have to worry much about human casualties on the scale they currently face. This leads some people — such as the person I heard on the radio — to want to ban such research and development for fear that it would make war more likely since the human cost would not be as great. Such people, though, are ignoring the fact that the military has been one of the great drivers of technological innovation since humans were living in caves and wielding spears and slings.
In recent years, we like to believe that the biggest driver of technological innovation has been the civilian or consumer market. This is a very short-sighted view. The Internet is based on the ARPANet which was a last-line communications relay in the event of all-out nuclear war. GPS units were developed and launched by the military so that they could maneuver in unfriendly territory and could keep track of exactly where their units were. Many of our modern sewage and water treatment systems come from the military as well since, for most of our history, more soldiers died from diseases spread by their brothers-in-arms than died from enemy attack.
To completely ban the military from researching robotics that could have tactical uses in warfare would deprive us of having the fruits of their research enter the civilian realm later on. Imagine life without GPS, without the Internet, without modern sewage systems, and without roads — roadways being an invention of the Romans to allow them to move their armies quickly and easily. All of these things came from a military and were later open to civilian use. A robotic soldier that could act independently, make decisions based on incomplete information, and could move across a wide range of terrain is a robot who could later be programmed to work in a nuclear reactor, to bury hazardous waste, or to pilot ships in deep space or in the depths of Earth’s oceans.
Could these non-military uses be developed without the military? Quite possibly. However, the military is and has been one of the institutions that is always concerned with looking at the long term picture. Corporations, private industry, investors, and consumers are frequently much more short-sighted and want a quicker return on their investments than something that might pay off in a century or so. Additionally, even if these robots were developed by the civilian sector, laws and regulations forbidding military uses could inhibit the civilian sector. After all, a robot who can be used perform surgery is a robot who can, with only a few tweaks, be used as an assassin. Aerial drones who can fly over fields to deliver fertilizers or pesticides can quite easily be used to deliver poison gas instead. Any tool can be used as a weapon so laws or regulations would need to be narrowly and carefully drafted lest we ban all robotic development — which could, indeed, be the desire of some of the more Luddite-inclined among us.
What do you think? Are there any specific robotic tasks you would ban? Why or why not?